Want to know why the police reform bill died in the Senate this week? Because, with the exception of must-pass government funding bills, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t know how to actually legislate in any instance that doesn’t involve him pulling a shifty procedural move in order to pass things on a party line basis.
There is a formula for passing difficult legislation through the Senate—it involves bipartisan talks and inclusion in crafting the original legislation. Back in 2013, that’s exactly how the bipartisan immigration bill managed to clear the Democratic-led Senate (even though the GOP-led House refused to even consider it). The bipartisan “Group of 8” spent months debating a very complex set of policies in order to come to consensus. But McConnell is either fundamentally incapable or just patently unwilling to engage in that kind of give and take, and reporters should be ethically bound to explain that to readers rather than telling them, as most did, that talks simply broke down.
No, talks didn’t break down. There were no talks—just Republicans crafting their own bill and then demanding that Democrats deal with it. As Joan McCarter explained, McConnell doomed the bill from the outset. But reporters almost uniformly failed to explain to readers that McConnell’s approach ensured the police reform bill would be dead on arrival.
The headlines in most mainstream outlets weren’t great, but they generally accurately tagged the measure as being a “Republican bill” (i.e., no Democrats allowed).
CNN: Senate Democrats block GOP police reform bill, throwing overhaul effort into flux
NPR: Senate Democrats Block GOP Police Reform Bill
Politico: Dems sink GOP police bill, leaving Senate deadlocked as country reckons with racism
It’s technically true that Democrats blocked the bill because they felt the police reforms weren’t strong enough, or “didn’t go far enough,” as many outlets put it. But in the first several paragraphs of the pieces, reporters utterly failed to explain that Republicans predetermined the outcome from the start by cutting Democrats entirely out of the process of crafting the bill. McConnell could have let debate over the bill go through the committee process, otherwise known as regular order. He did not.
In fact, that is McConnell’s go-to move—it’s really the only way he knows how to craft any legislation at all. In 2017, McConnell shaped his disastrous 400-page tax bill entirely behind closed doors and then, using a procedural stunt, passed it two weeks later without holding a single hearing and without getting a single Democratic vote. Republicans also busily rewrote the bill right up to the last minute in order to secure the votes of several must-get GOP senators. Because alas, Republicans cut Democrats entirely out of the process, just like they did with their 2017 healthcare repeal bill, which ultimately failed because McConnell fell one vote shy of muscling it through without any Democratic support.
On taxes, McConnell managed to sneak his legislative love letter to the mega-rich through the Senate. It was a shoddy, dodgy legislative process that led to a terrible bill that most Americans still frown upon to this day. But at least back in 2017, most outlets went to the trouble of explaining upfront that Republicans were using procedural tricks to exclude Democrats because they simply refused to make any legitimate effort to reach across the aisle.
Today, McConnell has so broken the Senate and is such a dismal lawmaker that reporters appear to have forgotten how legislation that draws bipartisan support is made. Yes, process matters. And on police reform, McConnell entirely sidelined Democrats once again. But this time he did it on a bill for which he couldn’t use any procedural hooey to push it through without Democratic votes. Therefore, the GOP bill—accurately tagged in most media coverage—was dead on arrival because McConnell ensured it would be.
So, no CNN, this isn’t accurate:
But efforts to find common ground have largely devolved into bitter, partisan finger-pointing …
There were no “efforts to find common ground” by Republicans.
And no, Politico, this technically true half-truth doesn’t cut it:
The outcome is a deadlocked Senate once again, with both parties accusing the other of failing to negotiate in good faith …
Readers deserve more than half truths in order to help them understand why this piece of legislation actually failed.
NPR flirted with illumination, but still missed the mark:
But by Tuesday, Democrats were demanding bipartisan talks before greenlighting floor debate. The move rankled Republicans, who say they already addressed Democrats’ demands to move quickly on a bill addressing police brutality.
Perhaps explaining that bipartisan talks are the precursor to getting any tough legislation through would help readers make sense of what’s happening in Washington.
Journalists get a lot of public frustration directed at them these days. Some of it is warranted, some of it is not. And certainly threatening journalists is never ever under any circumstances okay. Many of them are trying to do their jobs under very complicated circumstances.
But the public would likely be much more grateful for the job Washington reporters are doing if these reporters made real, good-faith efforts to explain why nothing important or transformative ever seems to come out of our nation’s capital. Yes, the country is polarized. McConnell, in particular, holds the power to do something about that division and has explicitly chosen to do nothing but exploit it for his own political purposes.
McConnell has broken the Senate on so many levels. But if that’s too big a story to explain in every piece, journalists could easily start small by relaying the simple and honest truth on a single piece of legislation. McConnell and the GOP caucus did not make an honest effort to broker a deal on police reform. That is the simple truth. And whether there was ever any consensus to be reached is something Americans will never know, because Mitch McConnell deprived us all of that opportunity.